Vladimir Putin is attempting to take control of a church in the Old City of Jerusalem.
The Russian leader, who in February invaded Europe’s largest democracy, sent a strongly worded letter to Israel Prime Minister Neftali Bennett on Sunday. The official correspondence demanded that Bennett follow through on a dubious agreement worked out between his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Putin that swapped the church for the release of an Israeli citizen who had been held in Russia on drug charges.
At question is the Alexander Nevsky Church which is currently run independently by the Russian Orthodox caretakers in Jerusalem. Also known as the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, it is a prominent holy site that contains the threshold of the city gate over which Jesus most likely stepped after being forced to carry his cross to Calvary. It also contains the “eye of the needle” – a slender opening in the city gate in which the wealthy would step through, after leaving their camels and riches outside the city. That was the reference Jesus made in the parable mentioned in Matthew 19:24.
The church was a stop on the Heartland to Holy Land March 2022 tour organized by Metro Voice.
The timing of Putin’s demand comes after Israel joined other countries to remove Russia from the UN Human Rights Council and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid accused Moscow of war crimes in its brutal invasion and scorched-earth policy across Ukraine.
After the UN vote, Russian officials summoned the Israeli ambassador in Moscow for an angry meeting.
During the Ottoman Empire era, the church site was registered as belonging to the “Russian kingdom.” It remained under the trusteeship of Israel and the local Russian Orthodox Church during the Communist Russia era and during Putin’s growing dictatorial leadership and infiltration of Russia’s Orthodox church.
According to Shay Attias with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, the dispute over the Alexander Nevsky church began in 1917. “In May 1948, the Soviet Union appointed a ‘Russian Property Affairs Commissioner’ who ‘did everything possible to transfer this property [the Alexander Courtyard] to the Soviet Union,” Attias writes. “This was desired not only because the Russian Orthodox Church wanted the property, but because it had value in terms of foreign policy and national security.”
Israel initially refused Russia’s attempts at control, saying the Israeli Supreme Court would need to step in.
That changed when Israeli-American Na’ama Issachar was jailed for drug possession after being detained at a Russian airport in 2019. In a controversial move, then-Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed to formally return the site back to Moscow. While Issachar was released shortly afterward, the 2020 agreement is seen as having emboldened Putin’s aim of global imperialism and undue influence on the historical and spiritual landscape of the Holy Land.
Later in 2020, Israeli land registry records were changed at the behest of the Netanyahu administration to say the compound belonged to Russia.
New Prime Minister Neftali Bennett ordered the Supreme Court to review the issue and reversed the land title decisions.
According to geopolitical analysts, Putin is using religion as a tool for “soft power” in conjunction with violent power moves like the invasion of Ukraine in an attempt to rebuild the former Soviet Union. They say that Russia is bent on controlling cultural issues related to the country.
“This time around, the target of Russia’s religious soft power was Jerusalem. It will be interesting to see where it strikes next,” says Attias.
–Dwight Widaman | Metro Voice